If you ask Italian friends or family how they prepare their ragù alla bolognese, everyone will give a slightly different list of ingredients, the cooking stages, and, of course, everyone will claim his or her ragù is the authentic one. When one looks at different recipes from “prestigious” sources, carrot, celery, onion, meat, wine and a long simmering process seem to be the only recurrent elements. As for the rest… Some use white wine, some swear by red only. Some fry in butter, some don’t. Some add milk, others skip it… I quickly realised it’s safer to add “my way” when talking about this ragù and thus avoid quarrels with other passionate cooks.
Apart from the basic obligatory ingredients, there are however certain rules to follow. The first ones are the already mentioned long simmering process and respect of the cooking stages. If you try making it in 30 minutes, putting everything at the same time, you will obtain an edible sauce, but never an excellent one (I have made this experiment, but only once). Moreover, since this dish comes from Emilia Romagna (Bologna is its capital) and since spaghetti is not part of the regional traditions, this type of pasta is the big faux-pas. For me, regardless the traditional approach, this ragù’s texture simply doesn’t fit spaghetti. It tastes much better with shorter pasta or in lasagna.
The recipe I have been making for several years is based on the one from “Ma Little Italy” by Laura Zavan. The dried mushrooms it calls for enrich the flavours, while cloves are the hardly perceptible, magic touch I particularly adore. Thanks to them the dish gains in complexity and elegance. I must confess I have modified the original recipe, or rather impoverished it in what comes to the meat used. I only use ground beef and pork, while Laura Zavan also adds dried ham and ground veal. There is also an atrocity I commit: I always season it with soy sauce. Some Italian readers might have a heart attack reading it, but in my opinion soy sauce incredibly improves the taste. Maybe if I add “my way”, I could be forgiven…
TIPS: Do not try shortcuts or changing the ingredients’ cooking order! This ragù has to be simmered for at least three hours. It can be made in two stages, during two days.
Remember how many cloves you put. You should take them out before serving (unfortunately putting them in a special bag or wrapping in gauze doesn’t work here: ragù is not liquid enough and cloves have to be scattered).
Preparation: 3 hours
Ingredients (serves four):
450 g – 500 g ground meat (half pork, half beef)
1 big carrot
2 long celery sprigs
1 big or two medium onions
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
100 ml red wine
500 ml chicken, meat or vegetable stock
a big handful dried mushrooms (the more aromatic varieties you use, the better, but even dried button mushrooms will be a better option here than the fresh ones)
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 can (400g canned tomatoes)
4 flat tablespoons tomato paste
Chop the mushrooms and soak them in boiling water (500 ml).
In the meantime chop finely the onion, the carrot and the celery.
Heat the oil and the butter. Fry together the vegetables and the meat until the meat changes the colour.
Pour the wine, stir and wait until it evaporates (the meat will start sticking to the pan).
Season with salt, pepper, add the herbs, the cloves the stock and the mushrooms with their soaking water.
Give a stir, cover and let the dish simmer for one hour.
After one hour add the tomatoes and the tomato paste and let the ragù simmer for one more hour.
At the end adjust the taste and, if you dare, add 3-4 tablespoons soy sauce.
Before serving take out the bay leaves and cloves. (Biting into a clove is a very unpleasant experience).